Robotics in Healthcare
Advances in robotics today are truly something to behold. Though we may not have advanced as quickly as Asimov had hoped, we are certainly not lacking: especially in areas such as healthcare. For this article, we consider robots to be machines that have an ability to sense their environment and act upon this gathered information (The Open University, 2019). Robots can also be classified as mobile (have the ability to move e.g with wheels), autonomous (self governing) and intelligent (the ability to work within an uncertain environment).
Tug is a porter robot who can securely deliver medications and tests etc. between wards (Aethon, 2018a). A mobile robot, Tug moves using wheels. He even has his own onboard power supply, with a battery life of 10+ hours (Aethon, 2018b). Tug is connected to technicians and the hospital via Wifi, allowing him to take elevators and open doors (Aethon, 2018b) giving him a level of autonomy: working without human assistance. Using laser, sonar and infrared sensors to create a 3D picture of its environment (Simon, 2017), Tug can alter its planned course in the event of an obstacle appearing. The ability to work in this uncertain environment and make decisions gives Tug the title of intelligent robot.
Another role for robots in hospitals, is as support for carers. ROBEAR lifts patients autonomously and transfers them to another area, using wheels as a method of mobility (Riken, 2015). Soft, non-jarring lift movements are achieved using actuators with a low gear ratio and various sensors (Riken, 2015; Spears, 2015). These include a torque sensor, to ensure there is not too much force, and tactile sensors (Riken, 2015), which have the ability to monitor pressure (Alagi et al, 2016; Göger et al., 2013) and adjust ROBEAR’s grip accordingly. These features identify ROBEAR as an autonomous, mobile robot.
Finally, in a medical context, robotics has been used to create exoskeletons such as ReWalk (ReWalk, 2019). These exoskeletons are being used to rehabilitate those with mobility issues, enabling them to walk/stand (Esquenazi et al., 2012). ReWalk does have its own on-board power supply, a 28-volt lithium-ion battery (ReWalk, 2019). Using motion sensors, it detects shifts in bodyweight to activate motorised actuators: which propel the user’s leg forward (Holloway, 2012). Reflecting on our earlier definition, for this reason ReWalk is considered a robot despite its low level of autonomy. You could also argue, as it is able to mobilise when the user is not, that ReWalk is a mobile robot.
Despite the successes, these leaps forward do leave some ethical concerns. One such concern is the creation of a medical workforce devoid of human emotion (Carsten Stahl and Coeckelbergh, 2016). In the case of robots working directly with humans, there are safety fears. If ROBEAR’s sensors were to fail, could it accidentally grip a patient too hard and cause harm? Finally, there is the social issue of replacing human workers with robots. Would this cause a rise in unemployment and what policies would need to be in place to protect jobs? (Marchant et al., 2014).
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The Open University (2019) ‘3.2 Definitions of robots, TM129 Week 1 Study Guide: Robotics and the Meaning of Life [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1407451§ion=3.2 (Accessed 31 March 2019).